The European Year of Youth: just another acronym, or the rallying call needed in the Balkans?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Nikolina Garača
Nikolina Garača

Programme Coordinator of the Genesis Project

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

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Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

On 15 September 2021, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that 2022 would be designated as the European Year of Youth (EYY). A new website and the #EuropeanYearOfYouth hashtag were created for this occasion, inviting young Europeans to make their voices heard and to join some of the many organised activities. After all, it is modern nowadays to have a ‘youth’ component or working group on the agenda, but then what? And what about non-EU European youth in Balkan countries? Do they just sit and watch from a distance?

Adults in power at different decision-making levels have slowly started to recognise the potential of youth today. Many would say that young people are empathetic, ecologically aware, determined or bold, and perhaps entrepreneurial. Youth are even described as inspiring.

The development of these traits was not merely the result of a new dynamism among young people, but rather a prerequisite for survival. Indeed, such traits do inspire, but that is only because they challenge the structures of existing systems. The truth is that this generation was born into oppressive, discriminatory societies, with broken education systems and unfair labour markets, that have been subjected to crisis after crisis.

We are yet to see meaningful changes in youth policy on participation and equity. Job descriptions and terms of reference remain unchanged, but less years of professional experience does not indicate less relevant experience, especially in these ever-changing times.

Discussions around youth policy should take place where youth meet

The status quo is very slow to change, but change must start somewhere. Businesses and organisations that are not ready to hire additional staff should offer young people a paid internship instead. No one needs to give up their job or chair at the decision-making table; but concrete steps need to be taken to ensure more employment opportunities for youth are established. Continuing to view youth as incompetent, insufficiently experienced or less serious reinforces the prejudice that leads to discrimination and eventually oppression.

In systems across Balkan countries, we often hear that youth are passive, uninterested and unreliable, but this is because outreach activities towards them are greatly unsuccessful. The youth become ‘no-shows’, meanwhile their need to be included, trained or empowered grows unabated. This is how systems in the Balkans have persisted: looking for fish on land, only to accuse the fish of being invisible, and finally concluding that the fish need to improve themselves and work harder. This way of thinking eliminates the responsibility of adults from the equation. We even dedicated a whole year to European youth, but the fish still aren’t leaving the water.

Adopting a human-centred and youth-friendly approach, discussions around youth policy should take place where youth meet, speak their language and, above all, hear their voices, ideas and concerns. There is no other way to understand others’ needs and wants than to unconditionally listen – and oftentimes to do that, one must put others before themselves.

For example, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s UPSHIFT programme, created within the UNICEF Office of Innovation, conducts youth outreach by visiting schools and utilising tools such as Instagram to connect with relevant audiences. The workshops ask: “What is it that bothers you? What would you like to see change?” Active listening to young people’s responses generally reveals astonishment among the workshop’s facilitators.

Youth need adults in power to talk with them, not at them

Though I am 27 and will soon graduate from the youth age group, I have experience with the Balkan youth of today. I was privileged to have been raised after a war with enough food on my plate and ample resources to learn foreign languages, study at universities and go abroad. My city is an urban area with internet access everywhere and public transport at my doorsteps. My teachers and educators encouraged my curiosity and activism. Therefore, my identity reflects that of a slim percentage of youth in Balkan countries. However, I am deciding to speak for all Balkan youth because I have worked with, listened to and lived the reality of a young person in the Balkan countries for the past 27 years. Here is what I have learned.

Youth need laws that support and encourage remote work, mobility in the workforce, freelancing and digitalisation. Youth want to prioritise topics such as health and the environment over hate speech in media. Youth hope for high-quality and student-oriented online and distance learning. Youth crave safety and cybersecurity for everyone, including our own children, and youth demand credibility among public figures. Youth need adults in power to talk with them, not at them. Leaders need to demonstrate that they are dependable and willing to truly cooperate together with youth.

The EYY might mean we are one step closer to changes in youth policy, but only if adults in power show up and actively listen to youth. The next step is making sure young people participate in every decision-making committee, working group, team and department as full members. The question we must put to our leaders is: can we keep EYY from becoming just another acronym?

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